An interesting comment exchange with Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me to thinking about the sets of expectations we have when we read work by a familiar author. Often those expectations help us to feel comfortable with that that author’s books and I think that’s in part because we know the kind of story to expect. Often, there’s also a group of ‘regular’ characters we get to know and enjoy. Before I go on, I’ll give you a chance to check out Carol’s interesting blog.
Right. Back to expectations. On the one hand, that kind of familiarity can be a good thing. For the author, it means a loyal base of readers. For the reader, it means a certain confidence that what one’s about to read is probably not going to disappoint. On the other hand that kind of familiarity can be limiting. It’s treacherously easy for the author to fall into a pattern of what become ‘cookie-cutter’ plots; I’m sure we all can think of series like that. What’s more, when an author changes a character’s personality, or a plot style, or writing style, or something else important in the series, fans can be really put off. You can think of it if you like as ‘reader ownership’ – readers are attached to certain characters, a certain writing style and so on and when that changes it can feel like a personal affront. Like just about everything else, there are positives and negatives about the sort of ‘track record’ some authors build.
One of the more famous examples of this set of expectations is the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. From the time they first came on the scene, the Holmes stories were popular and Conan Doyle’s fan base grew and became intensely loyal (as we all know, there are still many clubs, societies and so on that are dedicated to Holmes). Readers knew what to expect from a story and eagerly consumed each instalment. And then Conan Doyle had Holmes go over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in The Adventure of the Final Problem. As Holmes fans know, this outraged readers. They had developed a set of expectations about these stories and had a sense of ownership of the character as you might say. In fact, readers were so upset that Conan Doyle felt obliged to bring Holmes back, which he did in The Adventure of the Empty House.
At the time that Agatha Christie wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, readers of detective stories had certain assumptions about what to expect, not just from Christie but from the genre in general. For instance there would be a murder, there would be a group of likely suspects and there would be a sleuth who would unmask the killer. Christie had followed that pattern in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links so readers had a set of expectations about what would happen in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But in this case Christie didn’t meet those expectations. She did something completely different and that choice upset a lot of readers. She was accused of ‘not playing fair’ and of breaking the rules of crime fiction if I can put it that way. In hindsight her decision has turned out to be a wise one. Today The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered by many to be one of her best works. But that’s not how her readers felt at the time.
Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series won her millions of devoted fans. Her sleuth, journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, his love interest Polly Duncan and the other regular characters in the series became favourites for a lot of readers who felt they had a certain amount of ownership. Readers came to expect certain kinds of plots, certain kinds of events and so on. But towards the end of the series many people saw some changes in the novels and they didn’t like it. For instance, Braun’s last novel The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers got quite a lot of negative press. In fact several reviews suggested that she hadn’t written the book herself. To be honest, I read that kind of thing about the last few of her novels. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I do know that even her devoted fans felt put off by what they saw as changes to the style, the focus and so on.
Sue Grafton’s ‘alphabet series’ featuring PI Kinsey Millhone also has a very devoted group of readers. Fans from all over the world have eagerly followed Millhone’s adventures since 1982 when A is for Alibi was published. And 22 books later, Millhone still has a huge following. And yet, not all of her fans have been happy about all of the developments in the stories. And this is what got Carol and me ‘talking’ about reader expectations. Readers have come to expect a certain writing style, a certain kind of plot, certain behaviours and so on from this series. Graftotn has experimented with different points of view, different kinds of pacing in the stories and other changes that haven’t always been well-received, and part of the reason for that may be that readers’ expectations have run up against the author’s choices. Despite some reader disappointment, I know that millions of readers (I’m one of them) are going to be interested in what Grafton does with Kinsey Millhone #23. W is for When….? ;-)
Camilla Läckberg created a very popular series featuring biographer Ericka Falck and her husband police detective Patrik Hedström. Beginning with The Ice Princess, this series has followed Falck and Hedström through several different criminal investigations, as well as developments in their personal lives. Many people (and I’m one of them) love the fishing-village setting, the mystery plots and the pacing and action. But as time has gone by, some readers have felt that the series has gotten away from what they saw as its initial ‘edginess.’ After The Ice Princess, readers had certain expectations for the kinds of plots that future novels would have, and the focus of those novels. And those readers have been a bit put off by what they see as the increasing focus on the domestic sides of these characters’ lives. That of course is a matter of taste; there are readers who really enjoy that aspect of the series. That’s why it’s such a good example I think of the way readers feel a sense of investment in a series and have very personal reactions when they feel that their expectations aren’t being met.
The whole question of readers’ expectations raises the issue of just exactly what authors owe their readers. The author/reader relationship is a complicated one really. Should authors write in the style and with the patterns that their fans have come to expect (and keep loyal readers but risk ‘sameyness’)? Should they innovate (and stay fresh, but risk making readers cranky and creating books that simply aren’t good)? What about readers? Do readers really have a stake in series they love? To what extent? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you’re a reader how do you react when you sense a change in what an author is doing? If you’re a writer, what role do reader expectations play in what you write?
Thanks, Carol, for the inspiration and the great conversation.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls. C’mon now, didn’t you expect a Billy Joel lyric from me? ;-)